I make no claims to be an analyst, specialist or anything more than a hardcore football fanatic. I've been obsessing over the game for over 25 years and have been watching the Birds for almost that entire time. Yet, this roster has me more excited than any I've ever seen coming into the preseason. Here's my breakdown of each group position and how I think they rank.
Offensive Line: This may be the area with the most question marks for this team. Granted, this line allowed the 3rd fewest sacks in the league last year, but much of that was due to Ryan's ability to get rid of the ball quickly. Even though Turner had another 1000+ rushing season, he did it on more carries and a lower overall yard average. The departure of Harvey Dahl may not be missed too badly, as all indications are that his eventual replacements are showing great promise. The verdict on Sam Baker as LT is also still out, and if he doesn't make significant progress this year, it may be time to find a replacement for him. Grade: C
Running Back: Turner has been a work-horse since his arrival in 2008, and his punishing style of running continues to make him a nightmare for linebackers and DBs across the league. The Falcons want to take some of his 300+ carries and hand them off to a change-of-pace back, but last year's early injury to Norwood kept that from happening. That may change this year with the pick-up of Jaquizz Rodgers, a small but explosive back who is showing great signs in camp that he may be ready for that 3rd down role, as long as he can learn the necessary protections. I fully expect Turner to have another stellar season, and the addition of Jaquizz finally gives Ryan the option they wanted out of Norwood. If Snelling is retained, this is one dangerous backfield. Grade: B
Tight End: Yes, Gonzalez is the best TE to have played. And yes, he's still getting around like a 28 year old. But the Falcons have little to no depth here. Peele has shown little to make us think he's a suitable replacement and Michael Palmer spent most of his time on the practice squad last year. Tony still has incredible hands and blocks out the defense better than any receiver in the league. All indications are that he's still in amazing shape, but the Falcons need to start thinking about who the long-term replacement is going to be. Grade: B
Receivers: Roddy White is easily one of the best receivers in football. His amazing hands last year earned him another Pro-Bowl berth and another 1000 yard season. But this year's focus is undoubtedly on the rookie Julio Jones, and all indications are that the Falcons have another stud receiver to throw to. Anyone who has seen Julio so far has been amazed not only by his ability, but by his composure, maturity and understanding of the playbook. Typically, rookie WRs don't have an immediate impact, but this may be one of the few exceptions. At the very least, he'll relieve some of the double-teams that Roddy dealt with last year. Losing Jenkins as a possession receiver hurt, but if Kerry Meier can step up, he can serve as a suitable replacement. The early word is also that Harry Douglas is fully healed from his torn ACL from two years ago, and his explosive speed is back. If true, he could be extremely dangerous out of the slot. All in all, this could end up being one of the most dangerous receiving corps in the league. Grade: A
Quarterback: What else can be said about Ryan that hasn't already been said? Tied for most wins in his first 3 years with Dan Marino. Pro-Bowl in his 3rd year. Rookie of the Year. The unquestioned leader of this Falcons team. Look for yet another step forward in the progression of this amazing QB. I fully expect to see Ryan repeat, if not exceed, his amazing performance from last year. Ryan alone is reason enough to be excited about this team. Grade: A
Defensive Line: Considered one of our weaknesses last year, the D-Line may be undergoing the biggest change, and all of that with the addition of only one new player. The pickup of Ray Edwards at an amazing price has Atlanta fans singing Dimitroff's praises. Combined with the future HOF John Abraham, it's not unreasonable to expect somewhere around 20 or more sacks between our two starting DEs. If Bierrman continues to develop and the "potential" of Sidbury starts emerging, the ends may end up being one of our strengths, especially as game fatigue starts hitting opponents in the 4th quarter. The tackle situation may have also undergone an upgrade through health. Early indications out of camp are that Peria Jerry is looking like the beast the Falcons were hoping for when he was drafted two years ago. Jonathan Babineaux should repeat his pro-bowl caliber play and the emergence of Corey Peters last year gives us some depth. This line just might be one of the best Atlanta has fielded in a long, long time: Grade: B
Linebackers: It's all about the health, and the fact that two of our 3 linebackers played injured last year should give us some hope for this year. Lofton is a great general in the middle who sees the field very well. Weatherspoon is a freak that can explode to the ball and can provide some extra explosion as a blitzer. Nicholas is a solid, if not overly average linebacker. The only issue here is depth. Mike Peterson is a great backup vet, but after him, little else is known. Akeem Dent will probably see time on special teams and projects better as a middle linebacker than on the outside. This should be a solid group, and if they stay healthy, could prove to be a fairly dominant crew. Grade: B-
Safeties: Thomas DeCoud and William Moore don't have the marquee names, but these guys have shown some great moments. William Moore can hit like a freight truck and DeCoud seems to always be around the ball. If Moore can repeat and top his great year last year, the safeties will no longer be considered a weak point. DeCoud needs to tighten up his coverage and close gaps a bit quicker, but he's young and this is yet another year for him in the Smith/Van Gorder system. I'm not sure if either of these guys are pro-bowlers, but they should be solid - and to boot, they are both young. Grade: B-
Cornerbacks: Pro-Bowler Brent Grimes HAS returned, and the word is that this guy is in freakishly amazing shape. Considering he was the most targeted CB in the league last year, expect Grimes to have another great year. Dunta appeared to have an off year, but the truth is probably something different. Teams didn't throw at Dunta much, instead choosing to target Grimes. This season will probably be different and Dunta can expect to be tested more. Was he worth the hefty contract he was handed out of Houston? This is the year to prove it, as he now has a solid year under this new system under his belt. In the Nickel packages, we all remember how terrible Owens played at the end of last year and against Green Bay in particular. But if camp reports are true, it looks like Owens and Dominique Franks are having an impressive battle for that nickel spot. But camp is one thing, and without a proven track record here, the defensive backfield may still be a weakspot - especially against pass heavy teams like Green Bay. The potential for this group is huge, but at this point, much of it is unproven. Grade: C
Overall, this team doesn't have any glaring weaknesses. They appear to have made all the moves necessary to take another step forward. And for a team that won the NFC South and had the best record in the NFC last year at 13-3, it would have been easy to rest on their laurels. Thankfully, perfection is on the minds of this front office and they took yet another step towards their ultimate goal: bringing home the Lombardi trophy.